Smells are a bit like accents, you can only really detect other people’s. When I was a teenager, my best friend’s house had the most distinctive smell, the Indian spices had soaked into every soft surface. It still takes me back there now, any time I enter an Indian specialty shop or inhale the contents of my own spice box. It always made me wonder what my own house smelt like, but I knew I could never know.
People have a smell as unique as their house’s and again, your own is always a mystery. But I recognise something common to my own family members. A friend of mine feels strongly that romantic compatibility is revealed by smell – I remember her explaining that she could imagine ending up with a particular guy, partly because she loved his smell. The arousing potential of odour is the essence of the fragrance industry, and I know someone who can identify by smell the exact moment his partner comes.
Smells tell you where you are in place and time. Right now our garden is sticky with the musk of jasmine, to savour for just this very short time. Christmas in Australia is the clean tang of pine needles in the heat.
I could lose my four other senses and still know when I was in my beloved Central Market. Meandering its aisles, aromas cascade around you – smelly cheeses and cured meats blend intriguingly with freshly-roasted coffee and nuts, then morph into the perfumes of coriander, limes and one of my favourites - steamed rice - as you enter Chinatown. As we move into summer, the market air will exude tomatoes on the vine, their herbaceous friend basil and the overblown reek of very ripe mangos.
Who can shop for fruit without their nose? Touch might confirm the ripeness of an avocado or peach, but for the pineapple a whiff is best. Strawberries looking perfect in the box are found well past it by our olfactory sleuth. And it’s not just food: I know when my children are sick because their breath smells wrong. I haven’t experienced it, but apparently even death has a distinctive smell, some say rather like overripe fruit.
I use my nose all the time to cook. When I’m experimenting with new flavour combinations and not ready to commit to the irreversible adding of A to B, I will waft both parties under my nose to sense whether their fragances are harmonious. But it can be misleading: I love parmesan cheese, but to me it stinks of smelly feet. I’ve heard it’s because they have some bacteria in common, and not everyone can smell it.
I’ve also heard that smell is the oldest sense, located closest to the ancient memory centre in the brain. So what we smell, we remember.
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